Caregiver (Chito Roño, 2008)
In an early scene in Chito Roño's Caregiver, we see Sarah (Sharon Cuneta) peek into the bathroom where her mother (Marita Zobel) is giving her Alzheimer's-afflicted grandmother (Anita Linda) a bath. The mother sees Sarah peeking and gives her a warm comforting look. Sarah's younger sister (Mickey Ferriols) then enters the bathroom to help dry and dress up their grandmother. Sarah, out of familial sensitivity, closes the door, granting her grandmother the privacy any human being deserves. It's a lovely scene, made even more resounding with gestures that summarize exactly why the Philippines has ended up as the world's foremost supplier of domestic helpers, nannies, nurses, and caregivers. The Philippines is a nation of caregivers: of daughters and granddaughters who remain compassionate to those senior to them; of grandmothers and mothers who respond with genuine attention to their sons or daughters; of siblings taking care of siblings; of wives keeping up with their husbands.
Caregiver begins in the Philippines, where Sarah, a schoolteacher who spends her nights studying the intricacies of caregiving, gets ready to leave for London, where her husband Teddy (John Estrada) works as a nurse's aide. While most of the film happens in London where we see Sarah go through the joys and pains of a caregiver, suffer through a slowly deteriorating marriage with her husband who is wallowing in self-pity, win the respect of a wealthy yet extremely moody retiree Mr. Morgan (Saul Reichlin), and take care of a misdirected youth (Makisig Morales) she first encountered shoplifting in a grocery, it is during the moments in the Philippines that are most poignant.
Director Roño and scriptwriter Chris Martinez paint a very clear portrait as to what Sarah is willing to sacrifice for her job as a caregiver in a nursing home in London. Most moving of the sacrifices Sarah is willing to take is the possibility of leaving her lone son (John Manalo) without any parents. The film takes utmost pains to detail the waning relationship between mother and son, with the latter stoic and rebellion amid the threat of being left alone by his mother, and the former exercising her maternal instincts even up to her final days in the Philippines. Their reconciliation is handled deftly, with the two of them expressing their emotions in the middle of a playground where homeless orphaned kids sleep (a visual expression of how they are still lucky despite their circumstances). Sarah then shares her son's bottle of beer, a subtle expression that they both share the same fears, and it is thus pointless for them to separate with hardened and hurt hearts.
Sarah's experience in London is standard melodrama, with suffering wife overcoming the odds to come out strongest and admirable in the end. Touched deftly are the repercussions of displacement. In fact, the most significant character in the film's London scenes is Sarah's husband who has deteriorated into a pathetic alcoholic mess, more so because his masculinity is greatly disadvantaged by the fact that Sarah was able to find success when he cannot do so. Caregiver brings into the forefront the humiliation, the pride-swallowing, the ludicrousness of this forced migration due to the laws of economics; where successful professionals (doctors, nurses, teachers, etc.) are forced to downgrade their professions because of the indubitable economic gap between nations. The film expresses that caste systems exist not only within specific cultures but also in the family of nations, where citizens of third world economies are delegated lower status notwithstanding skill, expertise, or intellect.
But since Caregiver dwells more on human stories rather than lopsided world politics (although there's one scene where the ludicrousness of such politics is exemplified, where a Filipino ex-doctor (Jhong Hilario) is sacked from the hospital where he's working as a nurse for disobeying his superior although that act of disobedience saved a human life), its agenda is much more simpler: to venerate the Filipino overseas worker. It's an endeavor that has been done and redone in Philippine cinema ('Merika (Gil Portes, 1984), The Flor Contemplacion Story (Joel Lamangan, 1995), Milan (Olivia Lamasan, 2004), among others), with different levels of success. What Caregiver accomplishes is something deeper than trite veneration. That veneration is in fact an assertion of a mutated hierarchy of values inflicted by an age of financial necessity in a country that has been relying on exporting professionals to other nations to work for better pay but with menial tasks.
When in the end, Sarah chooses to stay put with her work in London, presumably following the lessons she learned from Mr. Morgan, it feels like Sarah has championed her individuality (or for feminists, her ability to make a decision on her own), besting the pathetic whims of her husband, and presumably realizing her dreams of financial freedom. In the larger arena of things however, her decision is one that champions complacency, one that can be regarded as a tacit acceptance of her role in the world no matter how unjustly such role is rendered, one that confirms such mutated hierarchy of values and in fact celebrates it as a virtue. What Caregiver affirms is that the Philippines has a sorry place in this world of ours, and all we can do about it is accept it and cry (the last action an inevitable result of Roño and Martinez's effective machinations).